|Democrats with ties to the Obama White House on Friday are launching a two-pronged fundraising effort aimed at countering deep-pocketed GOP groups in 2012 — and adopting some of the same policies on unlimited, secret donations that President Barack Obama himself has long opposed, the organizers tell POLITICO.
The two groups, Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action, aim to raise $100 million to defend Obama’s re-election from an expected onslaught of attack ads from similar Republican outside money organizations activated in the 2010 midterms, organizers say.
The Priorities companion committees will have one that discloses donors — and one that doesn’t, a practice Obama hammered during last year’s election cycle as undermining the democratic process.
The Priorities group also is jettisoning an Obama rule aimed at limiting the influence of special interests by welcoming unlimited contributions from lobbyists, labor unions, corporations, and political action committees – sources that are still banned from giving to the president’s re-election campaign, organizers said.
“While we agree that fundamental campaign finance reforms are needed, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers cannot live by one set of rules as our values and our candidates are overrun with their hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman and co-founder of the organization.
“We will follow the rules as the Supreme Court has laid them out, but the days of a double standard are over,” he added.
Some Democrats bristled at what they saw as a sort of unilateral disarmament by Obama in 2008, when the candidate made clear that he didn’t want outside money groups working on his behalf and set sharp limits on who could – and couldn’t – give to his campaign. Obama still managed to raise three-quarters of a billion dollars, smashing past fundraising records.
But Obama’s top strategist David Axelrod sent a powerful signal late last year that Obama had changed his view — telling POLITICO that the White House would welcome Democratic outside money efforts in 2012, to fend off what Axelrod predicted could be up to $500 million in spending by GOP groups such as Crossroads GPS.
Crossroads GPS, a group founded under the guidance of GOP strategists Rove and Ed Gillespie, accepts unlimited contributions from donors whose identities can be kept secret.
And in case there’s any doubt that Obama’s campaign welcomes the new Priorities effort, its leadership team includes Burton, a former deputy White House press secretary; Sean Sweeney, who was a senior adviser to former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and former Clinton political strategist Paul Begala. Geoff Garin, who was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, is also among the group’s top strategists and will be its lead polling expert.
Among the group’s first supporters are Ellen Malcolm, the wealthy founder of the pro-abortion rights group Emily’s List; Harold Ickes, a former Clinton adviser; Jon Youngdahl, a Service Employees International Union political strategist.
They also include Jay Dunn, a long-time party fundraiser; Greg Speed, a long-time progressive advocate and media consultant, and Rob McKay, a major Democratic donor who is head of the McKay Family Foundation.
The influential SEIU, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, also is among the first donors to the joint effort.
Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg donated to the effort and has agreed to help raise money for the committees. Former Obama Florida fundraiser and Commerce Department official Teddy Johnston is also going to work to generate contributions.
Priorities USA will be registered under the tax code as a social welfare group, which means it does not have to disclose its donors, according to a memo outlining the effort. Crossroads GPS is registered under the same tax code.
Priorities USA will run independent issue ads advocating “economic policies that generate jobs here in America through innovation, education and investment in the infrastructure vital to our future success,” the memo states.
“It will oppose right-wing attempts to harm the American middle class in order to bestow special treatment on special interests,” it added.
Priorities USA Action will become a so-called Super PAC, an organization that will accept unlimited donations and disclose its contributors to the Federal Election Commission. It will run ads, send direct mail and do other work to support Democratic candidates or, more likely, attack Republicans.
“This is an effort to level the playing field,” said Sweeney. “Americans deserve an honest debate about job creation, the economy, national security and education. That debate will never happen if only right-wing extremists are engaged on the battlefield.”
To According to Burton, the organizers debated abandoning the president’s rule against donations from lobbyists and political action committees and accepting secret donations.
They ultimately concluded that “the Supreme Court changed the rules and made this a completely different environment” and “we won’t be boxed in by a double standard.”
The court ruling he refers to is a January 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission that cleared the way for corporations and labor unions to tap their treasuries and make unlimited donations to some political groups. They are still are banned from giving to party committees and candidates.
In response to that ruling, Rove and Gillespie helped form American Crossroads, which did disclose donors, and Crossroads GPS, which didn’t. During last year’s midterms, they raised a combined $70 million, of which the donors of about $43 million are still secret. The vast majority of that money was spent attacking Democratic candidates for the House and Senate.
Corporate players also stepped up their presence, most notably Charles and David Koch, owners of a giant energy firm, who contributed to candidates and committees alike.
The Kochs are hoping to generate about $88 million to influence the 2012 campaign, an attendee at a Koch summit told POLITICO. Crossroads has announced it hopes to raise $120 million to spend in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Burton said Priorities hopes to collect about $100 million. “We don’t think we’ll be able to match them dollar for dollar,” he said.
Creation of an outside group dedicated to the presidential campaign has been in the works for months and represents the final piece of a new infrastructure of progressive organizations that will take on Republican and business-backed groups at all levels.
In recent months, Democratic groups that had been hastily formed in the 11th hour of the 2010 campaign to try to protect some House and Senate candidates have been reorganized and merged to create two entities.
Majority PAC will focus on Senate races. Donors to it will be disclosed, but contributors to a companion arm – Patriot Majority – will be kept secret.
The committee is being headed by two former aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Rebecca Lambe and Susan McCue. The leadership also includes two former heads of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, J.B. Poersch and Jim Jordan. Craig Varoga, who heads Patriot Majority PAC, which ran ads on Reid’s behalf last year, and fundraiser Monica Dixon are also involved.
House Majority PAC, which is being run by Ali Lapp, a former campaign director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during Emanuel’s tenure, will assist vulnerable House members. The committee began airing its first ads last week, which criticize Republicans who voted for a conservative budget that overhauls Medicare.
Beyond the organizations focused on the presidential campaign, Senate and House races, other progressive groups are planning to play more active or new roles in 2012.
Emily’s List, which helps elect female Democrats who support abortion rights, will take on a niche role by providing independent ads to support the six women Senate incumbents up for re-election.
And American Bridge, a group founded by David Brock, who heads Media Matters, will have two subsidiaries: An organization financed with anonymous donors that will do opposition research on Republican candidates that will be shared with the other groups and an arm that will run independent ads and that will disclose its donors.
“I think progressives saw what the Republicans did and we not only want to replicate it but do it better,” said Chris Harris, spokesman for American Bridge.
As the Republican groups did in the last election, the Democratic organizations will share and coordinate their activity with each other to avoid duplication and maximize the impact of their resources.
None of these groups can legally strategize or communicate with official party committees and candidates.
However, Republicans easily overcame those barriers in 2010 by publicly announcing their ad buys and campaign messages so the independent operators could see where there were gaps and craft commercials that dovetailed with candidate themes.
The Democrats could have an advantage in coordinating their efforts because their network of groups is smaller, tightly knit and clearly focused – a byproduct of their study of the GOP effort.
American Crossroads last year tried to coordinate the efforts of a hodgepodge of conservative outlets, some new and some old. The coalition ranged from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion rights group.
Combined, the groups spent about $190 million, mostly on attack ads and mailings. The late-to-the-game Democratic groups spent about $94 million.
“We’re eager to meet Karl Rove and the Koch brothers in the public arena,” said Begala. “As long as they’re spending millions telling lies in their effort to destroy the middle class, we will answer them by telling the truth.”